Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dust with a Soul

Homily for Ash Wednesday, Year B
Joel 2.12-18 Psalm 51 2 Corinthians 5.20-6.2 Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18

If ever there were a day about reality, today is it. There is no way of escaping the very real fact that we are dust, and that at the end of our lives, we will all return to the dust from which we are made. But, we also know that we’re not just dust – we’re dust with a soul, dust fashioned into the image of God. And yet, too often, we look more like a pile of dust and ashes than we look like God himself. And in case we’ve forgotten, today reminds us. Remember … remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

But that doesn’t mean we have to be gloomy and sad and wallow in our sinfulness and inadequacies. Yes, today is about reality, but there is more to our reality than the cross of ashes that is put on our foreheads. St. Paul tells us that today is the day of our salvation. Yes, we are dust, but God also became dust to save us from our sins. Yes, we are sinners, but Christ conquered sin and death by his own death and resurrection. Remembering that we are dust only makes a difference if we also remember that we are dust that is fashioned into the image of God, dust that has been given a soul, dust that has been saved from death and given the promise of immortality. We are dust because we are not God. And the God who created us has promised to transform the dust of the earth into the splendor of eternal light.

And so we remember … the ashes on our foreheads remind us that we are not God, that we are dust. But the cross those ashes make is also a reminder … a reminder that even God can transform the dust of the earth and make us like him. “Now is a very acceptable time; … now is the day of our salvation” (2 Cor. 6.2b)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Person of Christ

Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Leviticus 13.1-2, 44-46 Psalm 32 1 Cor. 10.31-11.1 Mark 1.40-45

Life is personal, not an idea. And so when Continental Airlines Flight 3407 crashed outside of Buffalo, New York, this week, it very quickly became a personal experience even for those of us who had no connections to those who died. Unfortunately, it seems like we are getting too familiar with tragedies like this and the stories of people’s lives that emerge from the midst of the wreckage. But there is something in our human psyche that urges us to make these experiences personal – our compassion and empathy recognizes the human face that is affected, not just the abstract idea of suffering and pain. And so, in the aftermath of such a tragedy, we need to hear about people like Mary Pettys, one of ten siblings from a family in Buffalo who was described as the rock of her family, and who had just gotten engaged. We need to hear about people like Alison des Forges, a human rights worker who helped to document and educate people on the horrors of the Rwandan genocide of the early 1990s. And, of course, we need to hear about people like Beverly Eckert, whose husband died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. These are not easy stories to hear, but they must be heard. For those of us who are far removed from this tragedy, it is through these personal stories that we can make a connection. Because life is personal, not an idea – and any tragedy has a story that must be told and a human being whose memory must be allowed to live.

I wonder if that kind of a personal connection is what St. Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to understand. He tells them today, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11.1). Even for those first generations of Christians, it was hard to know who Christ was, because they had never met him while he was on earth. As the years passed after Jesus ascended into heaven, he became more and more of an idea and less of a person. And that’s even truer for us. It’s easy for us to think about God, to have an idea about God. We think of God as being loving and compassionate, forgiving and merciful – as long as we understand the concepts of love and mercy. Intellectually, we know God created us, and that he has given us everything we have. But all these things are just ideas – to know God as a person, to have a relationship with God just like our relationship with a parent or a friend, well, that’s a whole different story. When it feels like God isn’t listening to us or has abandoned us, it’s probably because we’re stuck with only having an idea of God, and don’t really know him personally.

But the good news is that things don’t have to stay that way. St. Paul knew that the Corinthians were struggling with knowing Jesus Christ, but there was a way to help. St. Paul himself was blessed with a personal experience with Christ, and he had devoted his entire life to becoming more and more like Christ. And so, with humility, he could tell the Corinthians – look at me, try to be like me, because I am doing my best to be like Christ. Of course, St. Paul knew that he wasn’t Christ – but he imitated Christ as best he could. The people of Corinth could see Christ as a person – in the person of Paul – and not just as an idea. By looking at Paul, Christ had a face, a face they could connect with and understand.

But I wonder, could any of us say the same thing? With true humility and honesty, could we tell the people around us: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Can we be that personal connection, the face of Christ for the world today? Sadly, too often we’re not much like Christ at all. Our selfishness and laziness gets in the way, what love we have we keep bottled inside. But it doesn’t take perfection to imitate Christ – only Christ himself is perfect. It doesn’t take wisdom – only Christ is truly wise. What it takes is humility, prayer, a willingness to ask for forgiveness, and an unfailing desire to love. Even if we can only reflect one part of Christ, we can still be his light, we can still be his heart, we can still make him a person, and not just an idea.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Using Your Strengths for a Purpose

Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Job 7.1-4, 6-7 Psalm 147 1 Corinthians 9.16-19, 22-23 Mark 1.29-39

I don’t like to preach about myself. Preaching is supposed to be about the gospel, and the gospel is about Jesus, not me. But, for once, I hope you’ll forgive a little self-reflection. If nothing else, it might help you to get to know your pastor a little better; and, with God’s grace, it might even help you to see a direction for your own life, a direction that comes from God and returns to God. And I promise, by the end, that everything will relate to today’s readings. But first a little background.

This past week, our parish staff went on an overnight retreat at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. Part of our time together was spent reflecting on a Strengths Finder instrument. Developed by Donald Clifton and the Gallup Company, this Strengths Finder uses a series of 180 questions to identify each person’s top five strengths. One of the great things about this instrument is that it recognizes that each person is a unique creation of God, blessed with unique talents and strengths. There are no weaknesses in the Strengths Finder – it’s not about telling you what you don’t do well, but instead helping you to understand what you can do well and then guiding you to develop your unique strengths. There are a total of 34 different strengths, things like Focus and Responsible, Positivity and Developer; and they claim that your chances of meeting another person with the same top-five strengths as you is 1 in 250,000; and your chance of meeting someone with the same top-five strengths in the same order is about 1 in 33 million. Our hope was that the Strengths Finder would help us as a parish staff know better what each of our strengths are so that we can work together in the best way to serve our parish community. So with that background, here are my top five out of 34 different strengths according to the Strengths Finder:

First, Includer. A person who has this strength wants to include people and make them feel part of the group. An Includer believes that everyone is fundamentally the same and equally important, and so no one should be ignored or left out. Second is Input. Someone who is strong in Input collects information – words, books, facts – because they find a lot of different things interesting. They store away all this information in their minds because it keeps the mind fresh, and some day it might come in handy. Third, Connectedness. Things happen for a reason because everyone is connected and part of a larger human community guided by God. With a strength of Connectedness, your faith is strong and you recognize that there is a purpose to our human life. Next is Strategic. This strength is a way of thinking that helps you see the big picture and the patterns in complex circumstances. A Strategic person is always thinking about new possibilities and wondering what could be, always trying to see a vision for the future. Finally, Achiever. An Achiever must accomplish something significant every day. There is a drive and an energy to work hard, even working long hours without burning out. Having a variety of tasks and always being busy keeps you moving no matter what.

So there you have it. Includer, Input, Connectedness, Strategic, and Achiever. Are these the best strengths to have? No, all strengths are equally valuable. But the idea of the Strengths Finder instrument is that I am called to develop these specific God-given strengths in order to fulfill my specific purpose in life. And, really, that’s what it all comes down to – purpose. Both Jesus and Paul today speak of their very specific purpose: to preach the gospel. St. Paul, especially, built on his strengths in order to accomplish that purpose. He had the strength of Adaptability, being able to live both in humble circumstances and with abundance. He had the strength of Competition, always looking to win the prize of eternity. And he, too, had the strength of Connectedness, knowing that we are all members of the one Body of Christ. St. Paul was able to channel these specific strengths in the purpose that God had given him – he was able to use his Adaptability, Connectedness, and healthy sense of Competition to preach the gospel at all times. Does that mean that he is a better or more successful person than the rest of us? Of course not. St. Paul was as unique as anyone else. But he was able to recognize God’s purpose for him and use his own strengths and talents to accomplish that purpose. And we can do the same thing. Being a good Christian does take a certain amount of self-reflection. But then we have to put that self-reflection to work, and always turn it back to look at God, the one who has given us our strengths.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Life in the midst of Darkness

Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Deut. 18.15-20 Psalm 95 1 Corinthians 7.32-35 Mark 1.21-28

One day, 14 hours and 20 minutes. That’s how long my house was without power during this week’s ice and snow storm. Just as it was during the windstorm in September, there were many people who never lost power, and several who are still waiting for their power to be restored. And, just as it was in September, the church, school, and parish office never lost power. But for me, in the 1 day, 14 hours and 20 minutes without power, the temperature in the house dropped to 48 degrees, once again the food in the refrigerator and freezer had to be moved, and there was plenty of inconvenience.

And really, that’s the biggest thing most of us have to deal with during the aftermath of major storms – inconvenience. We have to make plans to stay warm and to make sure we have enough food, we have to be careful when driving and clearing away the snow and ice, and we have to rearrange our plans. But we make do, we get by, and we move on as best we can. Of course, some people face greater hardships, and they’re not through this darkness yet. But the real benefit for all of us during these times of storm recovery, when the lights are off and school is closed and meetings are cancelled – the real benefit is that we are reminded of those things that are most important. Even when the power is out and the roads are impassable, we still have our faith, we still have our relationships, we still have life itself. Those things may be tested, they may be shaken by a little inconvenience, but there are some things in life that can never be taken away. And yet, there are some people who will try their hardest to take away our very right to live.

For the past twenty years, a bill has been introduced in the US Congress just about every year that has come to be known as the Freedom of Choice Act. As it has been introduced in the past, the Freedom of Choice Act would make abortion a fundamental right in our country. Much more than recognizing abortion’s legality, the act would take away all restrictions on abortion and would overturn informed consent laws, parental notification laws, and any law that regulates abortion practices to make them safe. Abortions would be available at all times of pregnancy, using all procedures, and would not have to be performed by a physician. Abortion would be de-regulated, and no laws could be made that would take away any person’s free and uninformed desire for an abortion. Nowhere in this act is any thought given to the life that is being ended, let alone the rights of an unborn child to live. The Freedom of Choice Act legalizes convenience and whim over life itself. The effects on our country and our culture would be devastating.

As of today, this act has not yet been reintroduced into this year’s Congress. But our newly-elected government leaders have promised to do all they can to pass the Freedom of Choice Act into law. In response, the bishops of the United States have called for action – they have called for all Catholics to stand together to let our senators and representatives know that such an act, were it introduced into Congress, would be unacceptable and irreparably harmful both to unborn children as well as their mothers and fathers and indeed our whole country. The bishops have asked all Catholics to send postcards to our senators and representatives, to bombard them with a united stand in favor of human life. At the end of Mass today, you will have an opportunity to participate in this postcard campaign, and I will give instructions and more information at that time.

The power of nature can easily remind us of what is most important in our lives, and our respect for life itself is one of those things. With love and compassion, we must reach out to women who see abortion as their only choice, and with even greater love and compassion, we must reach out to those who have made this choice already and are trying to live with their decision. But we must also stand together with one voice and one heart to do everything we can to make the voice of God heard. Even in the face of unclean spirits, there was nothing that could deter Jesus teaching with a great authority the most basic truths of life, of love, and of the fundamental right of each human being to live. So, too, we will not be deterred; we will speak together a word of great authority – that all life is sacred and loved by God, not a matter to be dealt with out of inconvenience. We can do without power, we can do without heat for a few days; but we can never do without the gift of life.